John F. Martin for GM
This image from GM shows a new Chevrolet Volt electric car at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit. GM said it is investing $336 million to build the new car at the plant.
This image from GM shows a new Chevrolet Volt electric car at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit. GM said it is investing $336 million to build the new car at the plant. John F. Martin for GM
Starting this month, General Motors is taking a second shot at the electric car. The company began producing a small batch of Chevy Volts to check for quality and reliability. Volts go on sale in California later this year.
A decade ago, GM angered customers who leased its first electric car, the EV1, when it canceled the program. Now, GM hopes to win those customers back — along with many more.
A Reunion With An Old Pal
Recently, Kris Trexler visited an old friend at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Sitting in a place of honor in the museum's electric car exhibit was the very EV1that he leased from GM in the late 1990s.
"Oh gosh," Trexler said, recognizing the car. It was unlocked, so he got in. "Wow, this brings back some serious memories here. This is just amazing to see this car again."
GM made 500 of the all-electric two-seater EV1s in a test program to see if they were viable in the marketplace at the time. A car buff, Trexler said that at first he wanted one because it was the latest, hottest thing. But owning an electric car made him a convert.
"It was really the most reliable car I've ever driven," Trexler said. "It's just a car that I took home, plugged in at night, got up the next morning. It was like having a gasoline station in the garage."
The car was perfect for him. But it had lots of limitations. It was smaller than your average sports car. It looked like something out of The Jetsons. And you could drive it only for about 70 miles before the battery ran out of juice.
Fixing Old Shortcomings
"Range anxiety was a big issue," says Andrew Farah of GM. A veteran of the EV1 program, Farah is the head of engineering for the Volt. Of the EV1, he says it was hard to calculate how far you could drive the little car — in fact, Farah got stranded on his way home from work one day.
Engineers designed the Volt to correct for this and other shortcomings. As a result, the Volt has a gasoline generator to recharge the battery on longer trips.
Hal Garb/AFP/Getty Images
GM Chairman John F. Smith announces plans to produce the new EV1 electric car in January 1996. At the time, GM was the first major automaker to market specifically designed electric vehicles to the public.
GM Chairman John F. Smith announces plans to produce the new EV1 electric car in January 1996. At the time, GM was the first major automaker to market specifically designed electric vehicles to the public. Hal Garb/AFP/Getty Images
"You get all of the benefits of a pure battery electric vehicle with none of the detriments," Farah said. "And you can continue to drive hundreds of miles on longer trips burning fuel, and do it as efficiently as the hybrids do."
Farah says the gas generator gives the Volt a big advantage over Nissan's all-electric Leaf, which will also be launched this year. The Leaf will have about the same range as the EV1.
The Volt will be more expensive — even after tax rebates, it's likely to cost more than $30,000. But Farah says that in the end, owning a Volt will still be cheaper than buying a Leaf for the daily commute, plus another car for longer trips.
Hoping The Time Is Now
Ten years ago, Chelsea Sexton was in charge of marketing the EV1. She left GM in a public huff after the company killed the program. Now she directs a nonprofit that supports the adoption of electric vehicles.
"I joke a lot with some of the old EV1 guys who are now working on the Volt that it's almost like the band's getting back together," Sexton said. "But now we finally have an audience."
GM hopes it can sell up to 60,000 Volts a year — a huge number compared to its previous plans for the EV1. And the company isn't taking a single potential customer for granted. GM wants to sell Volts to its former EV1 customers, too. And this time, GM plans to keep the cars on the road, instead of in a museum.